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07 October 2011

MOOG MOOGERFOOGER MF-102 Review | £249

© BBC/Terry Nation 1963
Photograph © Radio Times
C’mon, you know you’ve always wanted to do it. Stuck in an interminable meeting with some idiot blurting rubbish. Or when sharply ordered to do something by the boss you loathe. Or answering the phone for the fifth time in a day to have a foreign-accented cold-caller asking about your energy supplier.

The red mist descends, apoplexy bubbles up and you just want to shout “EXTERMINATE!”. Then again, perhaps you’re just a very annoyed singer in an industrial band.

For all that the human voice is the ultimate musical instrument, sometimes vocalists, like guitarists, want to mess it up with effects. Double or triple-tracking has been with us for an age; phasing since the ‘60s (Ichycoo Park, anyone?); megaphone effects abound (step forward Muse with a verse from Feeling Good, among other examples); and all manner of echo and reverb treatments litter recording history.

These days, of course, it’s rare to find a pop vocal that hasn’t been brutally smashed into tune automatically with a nasal-sounding pitch-correction gizmo. Then there’s the hard-tune effect that’s been running rampant over dance-floor ditties since the turn of the Millennium, making people who really, really can’t sing sound like pitch-perfect, if glitchy, robots. Around The World, indeed. So how about around all of reality with a little Dalek vocal fun?

Nope, this site has not turned into Sci-Fi-NerdoBlog - we’re sticking with muzo kit and, for authentic Dalek, you’ll be needing a ring modulator of exactly the type pictured left.

The interweb is a-slop with Dr Who fanatics’ attempts to emulate the metallic grind of the Doc’s most enduring foe, some using sample editors and others using ringmod plugins. The real deal, however, is the thoroughly analog-hardware Moog moogerfooger MF-102 ring modulator, as actually used on the set of Dr Who to mangle the voice of actor/writer Nick Briggs.

Before we get all muzoid on the MF-102, here’s a brief technical backgrounder for those who’ve never had the pleasure of having their rings modulated before.

The MF-102 derives from Moog’s original modular synths and works rather like this. You provide an audio input via, say, a dynamic microphone and issue a monotonal directive to exterminate Torchwood, while the ring modulator produces the sum and difference frequencies between the input and a carrier oscillator.

A low-frequency oscillator (LFO) modulates the carrier frequency and then things go nuts. Subtle tremolo effects, sweeps, divebombs and shrieked commands to OBEY! pour forth in a manner quite unlike any other effector. Let’s say the carrier oscillator is set to a 500Hz sine wave and the input signal is a 100Hz sine wave.

The output will be a complex waveform at 400Hz and 600Hz, the input signal and carrier oscillator having both been exterminated. So no, it’s not a vibrato or tremolo unit. It’s not a chorus, phasing, flanging or gating effect. It’s a bleedin’ ring modulator and you really have to dig in and wang those knobs to discover just how peculiar things can get. The output signal is rich in partials, so if you’re looking for metallic or bell-like sounds, ringmodding is how to forge them.

So then, Daleks. Naturally, you’ll need a microphone and, if routing the mic directly into the MF-102, forget condensers because it’s a monophonic tip-sleeve affair with no facility for phantom power. I’m not sure which mic Nick uses (I did ask, but BBC PR is probably having budget cuts like the rest of the corporation and maintains a stoic silence).

Perfectly adequate results can be had from a Shure SM58 or similar, although my current favourite is the AKG D5. The ring modulator needs a hot signal and some have postulated that an amount of overdrive should be used to beef up the mic’s output.

However, very close miking (like, right against the top lip) for a big, beefy sound and a good crank of the MF-102’s built-in Drive section will get you there. And now for the bit that Dr Who anoraks everywhere have been waiting for... The settings. At left there’s the LFO strip and we start configuring the thing thusly:

● Amount: 10
● Wave type: Square
● Rate: 25

In the middle, there’s the aforementioned Drive knob which, with the AKG D5, is happy when cranked up full. Moving on:

● Mix: 10
● Frequency rocker: Hi
● Frequency: 30

As mentioned, that’s where we start. You’re free to faddle with the knobs and buttons to arrive at different characters - yup, not all Daleks sound the same. Ask the Cult of Skaro, or their ghosts.

Various pre-processing techniques have been used over the years - in 1963, the midrange of the actor’s voice was boosted before ringmodding - and there’s further scope for experimentation with the LFO, Drive and Modulator settings. In fact, it’s possible to arrive at a passable Cyberman voice at certain settings, but I’ve an entirely different take on that using a certain TC-Helicon device.

If you’re a Dr Who keenie and really have to know how, get in touch and I might just reveal the details in a forthcoming post. Meantime, how about hearing the MF-102 in action? The cast for this audio slice includes a few drones, Dalek creator Davros himself, a rather poorly looking Dalek Caan and a patched-up Supreme Dalek. They’re having a natter about suicide...

Nick Briggs and his trusty MF-102
That’s the technology dealt with, but the really important thing is the biotechnology. From the above, you’ll gather I’m not a voice-over artist and it takes a bit of skill and practice to get the enunciation right, even with a ring modulator to hand. Or plunger.

Few people can do a Dalek voice without the necessary kit (although Hugh Dennis of Mock The Week fame gets pretty close), but the harsh staccato and rising inflection, especially noticeable when a Dalek is panicking, are key to realistic delivery. You’ve actors David Graham and Peter Hawkins to thank for initially nailing that, while Nick Briggs, pictured, is something of the modern-day expert.

But enough of scary monster voices. How about some musical applications? Vocally, who can forget, no matter how hard they try, Doctorin’ The Tardis? The Timelords, latterly The KLF (I hate them for that - ed), featured crass use of Dalek vocal gimmickry to flog a horse that should have been glue. And we’ve Rotersand’s 2005 single Exterminate Annihilate Destroy to keep us cheery.

Back in 1990, the title track of Golgotha’s Unmaker of Worlds album doubled the lead vocal with a Dalek voice in the first verse after the intro, while in the 1970s, Black Sabbath’s Megalomania, from the Sabotage album, featured a dropped-octave Dalek vocal during the “Feel it slipping away...” bits.

In performance, the cool thing about the Moog MF-102 is that you’re not stuck with having the unit just on or off, or the ignominy of scrabbling about on your knees if, say, you’re a guitarist using it as a floor pedal and have a yen to change settings.

There’s a copious number of sockets at rear by which Frequency, Rate, LFO, Amount and Mix can be twaddled with expression pedals, such as the Moog EP-3. And auxiliary audio in provides the means to introduce an external signal in place of the carrier oscillator. Also, if you’ve other devices that might benefit from the output of the LFO voltage, there’s an output socket for that, as well as an out for the carrier signal.

So, adventurous vocalists, guitarists, synthesists et al can go madly modular by spaghettifying this otherwise innocent-looking, wooden-cheeked box. Imagine what you could do with a guitar solo, a sizzling synth lead or howling sax. I’d post some audio examples - in fact, I will at some point - but I suggest you head for your local Moog dealer pronto (in the UK, you’ll find a full list or retailers at Source Distribution, otherwise it’s a Google job), plug in and ring-modulate like a maniac.

Moogerfoogers, of which there are many flavours and I hope to examine select models in future posts, are built like tanks, so they’ll likely survive touring well. They’re mains-only, so no battery backup, although Moog actually supplies a mains adaptor. And the MF-102 doesn’t have true bypass so the signal always goes through the preamp and drive circuits. Still, it gives the singer an excuse to have two mics - one for standard warbling and one by which to EXTERMINATE ALL NON-DALEK SPECIES! Which is nice.

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